The Alphabet of Death: Concrete Poetry and Holocaust Representation in Heimrad Bäcker’s Nachschrift Project

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In an essay published shortly before his death in 1997,  entitled “Mauthausen: Contribution to the Topography,” the Austrian poet, publisher, and photographer Heimrad Bäcker commented on the historico-linguistic legacy of National Socialism that he took as his topic of lifelong analysis:

The alphabet of German fascism is composed of words of death.  But the words

of death do not speak of death, but rather of HAVING EMIGRATED

(ausgewandert werden) / of PASSAGE THROUGH (Durchschleusen) /

of PACIFICATION ACTION (Befriedungsaktion) / of PURIFICATION

(Bereinigen) / of DISINFECTION (Desinfizieren) / of PASSING AWAY

(Entwesung) / of TOTAL CONTENTS (Gesamtgehalt) / of LARGE DRIVE

(grossen Auftrieb) / of JEWISH DISPATCH (Judenabfertigung) / of J-ACTION (J-Aktion)

/ of J-TRANSPORTS (Jot-Transporten) / of CHILD DEPORTATION

(Kinderabschub) / of PACIFICATION (Pazifizieren) / of EXTRAORDINARY

DESTINATION TRAIN TRAFFIC (Sonderreisezugverkehr) / of SPECIAL

QUARTERING (Sonderunterbringung) / of SB, namely SPECIAL TREATMENT (Sonderbehandlung)

/ of VF, namely GASSING VEHICLE  (Vergasungsfahrzeug), and all these deal with

matter of shoving the GOODS (die Ladung) to the doors of the gas trucks.

This euphemistic perversion of language in National Socialist political discourse, and above all, in the intentionally dissimulating administrative language of the concentration camp system, has been often noted, and in this respect Bäcker’s observation here is hardly an original one.  The rigor with which he investigated and critically handled this divergence of sense and reference in Nazi language, however, lent his literary corpus a uniquely intense, almost total orientation towards this problem, and in turn, gave impetus to his development of a virtually unprecedented conception of documentary art cutting across conventional boundaries of history and memory, poetry and factual discourse, collective representation and personal reflection.

Already by the early 1950s, Bäcker had begun to assemble materials pertaining to the concentration camp system and to engage his study and teaching with the problems of contemporary history and existence after the Nazi genocide.  Through his work as a poet and editor influenced by the language-conscious, politically oppositional avant-garde in post-war Austria and German–for instance, the Wiener Gruppe poet and architectural historian Friedrich Achleitner and the poet Helmut Heißenbüttel–Bäcker slowly found a way to work through his concerns with the recent past by means of the methods of concrete poetry, documentary photography, and conceptual art.  An excellent example of his early work is the text montage he published in the literary journal neue texte in 1973, “Mauthausen, der alte Donaumarkt mit Kleinstadtromantik,” which simply cites, without comment, a text that blithely includes the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial among the romantic Danube scenery of gothic churches and the “wunderschöne” facades of old houses.

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The text for this little piece of touristic grotesquerie, as the caption indicates, is from a recent article in a daily newspaper.  And finally, there is the cryptic word “büberau,” which is not the name of a village in upper Austria or a dialect word or anything else you might guess.  Rather it seems to be a self-reflexive designation for the artistic procedure that Bäcker follows in this work, an art of very minimal verbal displacement.  “Büberau” is an anagrammically deformed version of the word “Überbau,” in which Bäcker lets resonate all the senses, from the literal “building over” of historical sites to the more metaphorical walling up of uncomfortable memories of the Nazi past to the Marxist implications of “superstructure,” the cultural outgrowths of a particular social and historical condition.  Following Bäcker’s lead, my translation into English of this term would deform the word “superstructure” into “stuperrupture,” to designate Bäcker’s citational demonstrations of the non-sense in the apparent continuum of sense, as a tool of resisting the anaesthetic effects of ideology.  Notably, the recently established visitor’s center at Mauthausen, which offers a kind of supplement of reflective “memory” to the more old-fashioned “history” of the museum inside the camp, engages in a similar estrangement of a recent touristic text.  It displays a broschure published by the Austrian State Railroad for tours of the upper Danube, which recommends the excellent restaurants in the town of Mauthausen, followed by a look at the camp memorial and a walk on the “death steps” leading down to the quarry, before heading on to the next picturesque site around the river’s bend.

The most consummate achievement of Bäcker’s decades-long engagement with this material, however, was the Nachschrift project, which included two volumes of documentary poetry under the title Nachschrift I (1986) and Nachschrift II (1997), as well as the text / photography collection Epigraph (1989) and the radio text “Gehen wir wirklich in den Tod?” (originally broadcast 1989 and published as a CD in 1995).  All of these texts have in common their materials and form of construction: they are montages of quoted texts, documents, lists, registers, and protocols originating in the concentration camp system, above all, reproducing the voices of the perpetrators and to a somewhat lesser extent, of their victims as well.

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Bäcker used a variety of means of processing these textual materials, ranging from simple isolation and quotation of intact discourse to the reduction of quoted materials into cryptic graphemes or quasi-diagrammic patterns on the page [examples].  Each quote is carefully keyed to a footnoted source and bibliography at the back of the book, demonstrably asserting the indexical reference of Bäcker’s “post-scripted” poetic text to the existing archive of historical texts, documents, and testimony.  Here is a description in the author’s own words, from 1994, about his procedures and intent in the Nachschrift project:

In the document I discover: rudimentary concrete and concrete-visual texts,

which can be deciphered in a progressive process of concretion.  An

unintentionally effective ritual of ordering within a file notation can

give rise to a literary figuration.

A literary explosive power belongs to the only apparently inadequate

language models of the document; as author I am caught in their undertow

and can only protect myself by fixing them in a new, formally determined

system. . . . . If our glance falls upon it, it is easy to break through the barriers

of everyday speech and to make visible the geometry of the text.  The merely

pronounced can be made concrete.  I attempt this and thus I am a concrete

writer who perceives the possibility of concretion in documentary materials.

Sometimes that occurs in the ration of 1:1 (with elements of equivalent extent,

Dokument = Text), other times through reduction, repetition, montage,

serial means.

The discovery of linguistic materials left fallow has a formal intention,

not a moralizing, guilt-assigning, justifying one.  If a solid form is found in

the documents and cut out of it, then the result has a particularity over and

above the detail.  This above all pertains to statistics, if they are fit into a system

whose characteristic is no longer the reporting of numbers but rather their

reflection as literature: literature as a possibility to declare even apparently non-

literary elements to be literature.

Two dangers lurk in this procedure, and these need to be addressed from the outset: aestheticizing subjectivism on the one hand, depersonalized neutrality on the other.  The first refers to the possibility that the author is simply mining this emotionally-charged material for poetic effect.  This would be, in a sense, the ultimate exasperation of the “subjective occasionalism” that Carl Schmitt identified in the tradition of German political romanticism, for which anything and everything could offer the occasion for the isolated subject to play, making a poetic kaleidoscope of the world to be contemplated in passive impotence.  Might Becker’s “geometry of the documents” be no more than the hallucinatory play of shapes he sees when he fixes his eyes on the fire of the crematoria?  Or does his procedure so substantially shift the conception of the literary, the poetic, and the aesthetic that these qualities participate in, rather than deflect from, the epistemic, ethical, pedagogical and political functions of the documentary-concrete poetic work?  The other danger refers to Bäcker’s apparent refusal of any self-reference, expression of emotional or even ethical perspective in the presentation of his quoted material.  Does Bäcker’s exclusion of non-quoted materials and narrative elaboration merely reflect the positivism and false neutrality of administrative speech?  Does he analyze and critically displace the system of Nazi discourse, or replicate it, in a kind of traumatic fixation upon it?

A persuasive answer to these important questions will require more extensive discussion, but for now I will mention that Bäcker himself refers his project to Hermann Broch’s conception of literature as a cognitive process, which, in Broch’s case led him to break down the generic divisions between narrative and essay and to investigate the political anthropology of mass delusion in both novelistic and social philosophical treatments.  Likewise, in his comments on Bäcker’s Nachschrift, Friedrich Achleitner points to the ways that learning processes involving memory are encouraged by the experience of reading Bäcker’s work.  “The reading of the two ‘Nachscrifts,’ Achleitner writes, “demands a kind of learning by heart, like the score of a conductor.  Learning by heart not in the sense of a verbal reiteration, but rather in the sense of knowing one’s way around, orienting and remembering, the way one moves about in a complicated building without getting lost.”  As an architectural historian, Achleitner is sensitive to the intertwining of cognition and feeling, tactility and vision, memory and presence that the task of negotiating spaces involves.  As I will suggest in greater detail later, Bäcker offers a spatialized and temporalized model of language and a linguisticized model of space-time that converges in the concepts of concretion and topography.  So too, we might see his conception of individuality and authorial subjectivity rethought in terms of concretion and topography as well: the author fashions himself in the process of concretizing a life’s work within a situation of history, place, and speech. Bäcker thus spoke of the cognitive process of literature as one in which “I am always in the midst of, as a once and ever still living being.”  Of his engagement with the problems of the Holocaust and the language of National Socialism, he said: “It is indeed not merely my ‘theme,’ it is my life’s work.”  In the framework of a language / time / space continuum, Bäcker presents analysis and aesthetics, immersion in the errancy of historical events and the possibility of reflective learning in time, as facets of a single movement of a finite existence.

I have intentionally up to now withheld much specific reference to Bäcker’s life story, and it is now time to redress that lack.

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I imagine that many readers for whom Bäcker is not a familiar author are thinking that his interest and focus on the materials of the Holocaust arise from his being a Jewish author, perhaps who had experience of persecution, exile, internment, or the loss of family members in the concentration camp.  However, this is not the case.  Rather, Bäcker, who was born in 1925 and lived a few kilometers from the Mauthausen camp near Linz, Austria, came from a family which, as he notes, experienced the Anschluss as a material improvement.  His unemployed stepfather received work after the incorporation of Austria into the Reich, and his divorced mother, who was left with three children by the separation from Bäcker’s father, was able to marry the stepfather only with the introduction of state marriage by the Nazis.  The family, Bäcker noted dryly, was able for the first time to move out of the basement into an apartment with a bath: a highly concrete instance of the topography of pro-Nazi sentiment in Austria.  Becker himself had a childhood physical handicap and was ineligible for military activity.  But he volunteered for work on an upper-Austrian newspaper, then was involved in work with the “Oberdonau” Hitler-Jugend, and finally, at the age of nineteen joined the Nazi party.  According to Bäcker, who spoke with unusual openness about his youthful enthusiasm for Hitler, he found in these organizations an opportunity for community and an idealistic reveling in transcendence that only later would he be able to identify as a “psychic infection” and an “idiotic frenzy of reverance.”  In a 1995 interview, he said that “As a Hitler Youth, I was never the witness or perpetrator of an act of violence.  Perhaps I just had sheer luck.  But in any case, I have to say that in the last two years it became dangerous, because I had internalized the authoritarian habitus.  Even without committing acts of cruelty, I would have become someone who acted in authoritarian ways.”

What, then, accounts for the turn in Bäcker’s life and thinking, which made him confront in an intensely critical way his own and Austria’s Nazi past?  A convenient explanation would have been his sudden moral shock, at war’s end, at confronting what the camps were really about, but again, Bäcker refuses a too-easy story of catharsis and moral conversion.  He was indeed taken by the Americans to Mauthausen and saw what happened there.  Yet, he continues, “I didn’t understand it in its full magnitude.  Only with uninterrupted reflection and by observing a long-enduring susceptibility for the idealistic brew of National Socialist ideology was I able slowly to distance myself from this legacy of thought.  In any case in 1945 as someone who hadn’t suffered, I didn’t know what to do with the concept of liberation.  I only later found out that one of my cousins disappeared in Hartheim.  The feeling of liberation came to me only much later.”

Bäcker’s subsequent intellectual development and career, however, bear the signs of a critical and moral consciousness coming slowly into being.  After finishing his interrupted high school study, he study philosophy, sociology, and anthropology in Graz and Vienna and wrote a dissertation about Karl Jaspers, who of course in distinction to Martin Heidegger, directly addressed the question of German war guilt and responsibility.  Bäcker also began to study the sources of contemporary history beginning with the Nürnberg trials.  His self-understanding and his work are, as this intellectual itinerary suggests, rooted in existentialist concerns with individual authenticity and at the same time shaped by his confrontation with a massive, systematic, collective instance of radical inauthenticity in recent history, an inauthenticity that had drawn his own youthful self into its whirlpool.

We can detect his rekeying of existentialist themes towards the political and historical context, when he indicates, in the same interview in which he discussed his Nazi past, the need to attend carefully to the category of “Dabei-sein,” which for him will always be a source of danger for those who have not formed the capacity for reflection and distinction.  And similarly, in his description of the empty states of commitment–the jargon of authenticity–that delivered him over, as he put it, “to the idealistic visage of the Third Reich.”  He says of himself in an unpublished note: “Was this young man nationalist or national socialist?  But no, he was just “for” (er war bloß dafür), that is, for something that was in full swing and that presented itself as idealistic, for something that in some sense or another had a connection with higher powers (be it only by means of propaganda). . . it had to do with the Volk and community and with sacrifice, and it had to do with death.”

It is in light of this autobiographical background, likewise, that an explanatory note to the montage text Epitaph becomes clear: “EPITAPH is a step in the process of the sublation (Aufhebung) of sentences that the author wrote on 27 May 1942 in the Linzer Daily Post: “We have seen the Führer!”  This book is a mirror of that which written words can never express, but only in looking at these images can be experienced: A Piece of the Man Adolf Hitler!  The sublation–“Negation of the Negation” (Jean Améry)– that may subjectively appear as the sublation of the position of a seventeen-year old, cannot come to an end with a publication, but only with the end of the existence of the author.”  In the montage text, the mature Bäcker consummates–by rendering radical and willed–the previously unthinking loss of self that he experienced in his youth through his willingness to serve as the instrument and mouthpiece of Nazi clichés. It is as if his lifelong penance, his individualized being-unto-death, would be to embrace the premature “death of the author” he had experienced in his youth, to accept the sacrifice of authorial self-expression and to iterate, as irretrievable tokens of death, the fatal alphabet of German fascism.

I would like to conclude with some brief considerations of Heimrad Bäcker’s contribution to a 1996 conference on memorials on the sites of former concentration camps, an essay that Bäcker entitled “Mauthausen: Contribution to the Topography,” and which provided the quote with which I began my paper.  This text is, in my view, one of the richest theoretical supplements to the Nachschrift project, providing an explanation of Bäcker’s life’s work in terms that embrace the most important features of experimental poetry and conceptual art, while reorienting them as tools for the treatment of historical, political, and memorial contexts of public concern.  I can only touch on a few of the major points of this rich essay.

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First is that Bäcker synthesizes and turns to new contextual use a range of artistic tools developed in conceptual art and concrete poetry in the 1960s and early 70s.  Both conceptual artists and experimental poets in these years explored relationships between space or objects and structural relations of meaning, for which language was paradigmatic.  As Benjamin Buchloh for example has suggested, while Cubism represented the first emergence of a language-like model for visual perception in modern art, conceptual art sought “to replace the object of spatial and perceptual experience by linguistic definition alone,” and “thus constituted the most consequential assault on the status of that object: its visuality, its commodity status, and its form of distribution.”  Concrete poetry, from its side, sought to explore the forms by which language and its meanings could be “concretized,” given perceptual, materialized, space- and time-occupying presence, either as objects or, in a more sophisticated understanding, as embodied, performative events.   Most typically, however, these explorations were much more sophisticated about the structural and semiotic features of art systems than about the pragmatics of ideological and institutional contexts within which works are distributed and evaluated.  By contrast, for instance, to the dreams of universal communicability that animated the concrete poetics of Bäcker’s friend Eugen Gombringer, Bäcker insisted on the irreducible particularity of his linguistic material as always already shaped by its historical context.  Even his concrete forms refer to the typographic and diagrammatic forms of concentration camp documents.  Even the most apparently abstract or symbolic graphic forms derive from a position in historical discourse, not universal features of a language system.

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Bäcker’s essay on Mauthausen reflects on how the material decimation of the former camp sites–the disintegration and plundering of materials, the razing and paving over of structures and sites, and the division between official memorial sites and those given over to real estate development or decay–is in addition a loss of memory and meaning, as much as if verbal documents had been shredded or testimonies silenced.  In particular, he emphasizes the role of stones, which are bound up with the quarry labor in Mauthausen and Gusen, as “witnesses of time.”  At a literal level, Bäcker enumerates the carrying away of as much as five tons of materials from Mauthausen to Czechoslovokia, including, most notoriously, the exhaust ventilator of the gas chamber, which ended up in the Terezin memorial museum; the leveling of the Great Hall, the paving of the roll call ground (slide), the destruction of a tower in the south wall to allow the enlargement of the parking lot, the installation of a chapel in the laundry barracks, not to mention the more radical destruction of even major satellite locations such as Gusen, where the trainlines have been converted into bike paths (the still-intact embankments having been built by prisoners) and the built structures sold for mushroom cultivation, wine cellars, and residential housing.

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Bäcker’s understanding of these objects and spaces as a quasi-discourse of history, deformed and rendered progressively illegible, is made explicit in the second part of his essay.  “Landscapes, fields, geography are interpreted through memorial stones.  Here meadow, tree, a hilly horizon are elements of the space in which we are situated as historical beings.  Stones and the inscriptions of stone have something to do with this.”  For, as he asserts: “This stone is of concrete presence.  It is not a symbol, but rather a concretion.” The artistic metaphor of “concrete poetry” touches here on its opposite and twin: if concrete poetry strives towards the condition of concretization–towards spatial and material presence, material demonstration of temporal processes of aging and wear–then so too the literal concrete and stone of former camp sites takes on meaningful arrangement within the cosmos of human history and memory, posing a mute question to those who come after about their responsibility for and to the past.  Materiality and historical meaning exist for Bäcker in a topological continuum, and topography is his most general term for the artistic practice of describing and elaborating their topological interaction.

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The third part of his essay, finally, refers to the Nachschrift  project and asserts the solidarity of its documentary labor with the preservation of the historical meaning-structures implicit in the spaces and material objects of the former camps.  He explicitly now describes his poetic work as topographical: existing on the metaphorical continuum that intertwines language and space in particular places.  “The majority of my linguistic topography of Mauthausen,” Bäcker writes,” came about through the repeated study of the book The History of the Concentration Camp Mauthausen  by Hans Marsálek.  Its method: listing, repetition, enumeration, leaving out, or simple reiteration of quotation.”  This late essay thus embraces the full range of Bäcker’s life-work within a unified topographical framework: his documentary work as a photographer, his poetic work as visual-concrete author, and his public activism in the cause of historical memory against thoughtlessness and forgetting.  Bäcker likewise provides here a practical model, as well as a theoretical justification, for the use of the tools of conceptual art and experimental writing as a practice of historical topographic thinking.  In his hands, art and poetry becomes a passionate intervention into the spaces of historical experience and an elaboration of historical bonds that concretize language in topoi, rendering the places of our lives and deaths meaningful.

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